BALTIMORE — He speaks in quiet tones and frequently punctuates his sentences with a bit of laughter. And when one tries to get Joel Rosario to elaborate on his success, the already shy jockey often ends up at a loss for words.
"I don't know, it's hard for me to tell," Rosario said during his first morning at Pimlico Race Course on Friday. "I think it's the horses, it's all them. If you have a good horse you're going to run good."
Much as his soft-spoken ways downplay the fact, no jockey has made more noise in the saddle than Rosario in 2013. If the 28-year-old can't verbally pinpoint his intangibles, they have become glaringly obvious to most of the racing community.
The hands that executed a mastery of patience when guiding Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stables' Orb to victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago have become some of the most sought-after in Thoroughbred racing. Should Rosario steer his mount to victory again in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the duo will be one win away from a historic Triple Crown sweep.
Rosario leads the nation in earnings with more than $8 million in purses won this year. In addition to winning the Derby aboard Orb, the jockey's tear of success includes a Keeneland Spring Meet record for wins with 38 and a victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup aboard 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.
Rosario has been among the leading riders on the West Coast with meet titles at Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Park, so the Dominican Republic native was already a known talent before shifting his tack to the East Coast last summer. But the transition between the varying jockey colonies has proven as fluid for Rosario as Orb's strides beneath him.
"I'm not sure I didn't see this coming when he came to New York last July," said Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, trainer of Orb. "I thought when he gets a little more used to the East Coast riding style — because there is so much emphasis on speed in California — he is going to be pretty big.
"It's not a surprise to anybody to see the heights he's going to."
Be it turf, dirt, or synthetic surfaces; sitting off the pace or winging away on the lead, Rosario's style has translated equally well. The astute clock in his head wisely rated Orb well off the fast early fractions in the Kentucky Derby, but what has distinguished Rosario in race battles is his finishing ability.
One of the prime examples of Rosario seemingly picking a horse up and carrying it across the line came in the third race on the Churchill Downs card May 2, two days before his Kentucky Derby win. Aboard Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Atajo, Rosario was headed by Dehere On Tour in midstretch after setting the early pace only to engage in a vigorous, straining hand ride to get the 3-year-old gelding back up for a neck victory.
"He's a freak in a good way," said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. "I'm proud to say that ... I was one of the first guys to pick him out when he moved into Northern California. He had all the tools, and he continues to sharpen the edge of all of his tools, and it's fun to watch right now. What he did at Keeneland ... I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
In the paddock before the Kentucky Derby, McGaughey found himself legging up a loose, confident rider unfazed by the pressure of the moment.
Rosario then proceeded to deliver the latest in a series of emphatic statements.
"They run for him. And I think he feels the same pressure riding a $10,000 claimer or a stakes race," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said of Rosario. "He just doesn't get emotional. I can tell when he hits the wire when he wins he doesn't jump up and down and fall out of the saddle. He comes back the same old Rosario with his silly little giggle."